The artful dodger

The referendum campaign Mitt Romney is running against President Obama is going well — he has risen significantly in national and battleground-state polling and now poses a serious threat to Obama’s reelection. The economic outlook for the next quarter will likely keep the wind at Romney’s back as well, as it blows right into the president’s face.

Obama’s unpopular record in office is proving a winner for Romney, who has argued the former senator, professor and community organizer lacks the requisite private-sector experience to turn the failing economy around.

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Bashing has indeed worked for Romney, but selling his own governing record or his specific plans to lead as chief executive — not so much. He barely mentions his tenure as governor of Massachusetts and for months now has dodged questions about how to tackle deficit reduction. He allowed himself to be caught by Obama’s tactical strike on immigration last week, refusing numerous times in an interview with CBS News’s Bob Schieffer to state whether he would reverse Obama’s new order to halt deportations of children of illegal immigrants. Then in the same interview Sunday, Romney also refused to provide any examples of tax loopholes or deductions he would eliminate, saying “we’ll go through that process with Congress.” 

Democrats aren’t the only ones who have noticed Romney’s penchant for evasion. Rich Lowry, editor of the National Review, even noted Romney has “a great allergy for specifics and details.” In a piece titled “Risk Averse Romney” that The Weekly Standard ran in April, senior writer Stephen F. Hayes quoted Romney as saying “actually eliminating programs is the most important way to keep Congress from stuffing the money back into them,” before explaining how he learned from his campaign against the late Sen. Edward Kennedy in 1994 that it was too politically dangerous to get into details about just what government services should be on the chopping block.

The challenge to the Romney campaign is to prepare the candidate, no matter how hard he resists, for the possibility that he might at some point be forced to convince voters of his leadership ability instead of simply cutting Obama down. There are the coming decisions by the Supreme Court, not only on the constitutionality of the individual mandate for health insurance (like the one Romney supported as a model for the nation and now disavows), but the Arizona immigration law known as S.B. 1070, which Romney has called a model for the nation. 

In addition, and more importantly, turbulence in the global economy resulting from a crumbling eurozone now demands aggressive plans world leaders are struggling to agree upon. Americans are watching European nations ask the disciplined Germans to rescue fiscally broken countries now sinking not only under the burden of their debt but under the weight of steep spending cuts their deteriorating economies cannot absorb. Furthermore, the rapid spread of default overseas could necessitate a response to our own coming fiscal crisis sooner than Nov. 6 — a growing number of senators and members of Congress concerned about the chill to hiring our own $8 trillion fiscal cliff (scheduled to be resolved in the “lame-duck” session this December) is already having on employers and are arguing for immediate action. 

As the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the subsequent credit crisis did for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) when he campaigned for the presidency against Obama in 2008, this critical debate could force Romney to come clean and be clear with a volatile electorate about just how he plans to produce more stability and, ultimately, prosperity. To win it is a test he can’t fail, and the Crossing That Bridge When We Get To It plan might no longer cut it.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.